(Editor’s note: Since April, the Press-Register has written stories about dozens of oil spill victims, describing their struggles. Now, the newspaper is following the experiences of many of those victims as they pursue damage claims. The following pieces were reported and written by news staff members Renee Busby, Jeff Dute, David Ferrara, David Helms, Roy Hoffman, Brendan Kirby, Jillian Kramer, Robert McClendon and Rhoda Pickett.)
Ralph Atkins, 67, Mobile
Occupation: Owner of Southern Fish & Oyster Co., on the Eslava Street dock in downtown Mobile, selling seafood to individuals, restaurants and other seafood resellers since 1934.
The Press-Register reported beginning July 1 that Atkins had “one fisherman left” and that angler was going to work for BP. By Aug. 15 Atkins had received one check from BP for about $14,000 while business, he said, was off 75 percent. He worried that seafood consumers, “hammered by negativity” in the media, would be slow to return to eating seafood.
Outlook: Atkins sees some improvement, partly because the fishermen have returned from their BP jobs. “It’s going to be a bumper crop of fish production, and with a lack of negative publicity, things will pick up. The people in charge of this stuff . . . have tested and tested the oysters and fish and they’re fine with it. We just need consumer confidence to come back. People are telling me that they’re getting tired of hamburgers and want some seafood. Our sales are improving, and restaurant orders are up.”
Claims process: Atkins said his accounting firm is about to file a six-month claim with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. “We want to make sure we give them everything they want, but I’ve seen the government work before, and if they drag it out, there’s nothing you can do. They fly (claims czar Ken) Feinberg all over the place but nothing ever happens. I’m sure I’ll get something out of them, but they’re not doing anything for land-based dealers. Operations bigger than me haven’t gotten a penny.”
Jeff Fisher, 48, Theodore
Occupation: President and co-owner of B&R Campers, a family-run enterprise on U.S. 90 in south Mobile County.
The Press-Register reported beginning Aug. 1 that sales for B&R Campers fell dramatically after the Gulf spill, with the company blaming the beach-going nature of camper buyers. Fisher said the company filed a claim in early May and heard nothing. He said he was told to resubmit his claim after Aug. 23, when Ken Feinberg took over the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.
Outlook: Fisher said that B&R Camper has received no money for claims, to date, and that, “the clock’s running and the layoffs are coming.” He said the tourist season is over, leaving the company without the money it should have made during flush summer months to get through the lean winter times. Emotionally, Fisher said, he has hit bottom. “You start out hopeful then it dawns on you you’re being played for a fool. Then hope runs out and desperation sets in.”
Claims process: “We’ve submitted the same information five times — four to BP, one to Feinberg.” He said that he recently got a letter from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility saying the group didn’t have his information, and he’d have to resubmit his claim. It costs him about $1,500 each time he has to file a claim, he said, given the accounting fees involved. Fisher said he contacted the claims group Wednesday by phone and was told that unless he was “facing an eviction or a foreclosure,” he’d have to get in line and wait. “I told her, ‘Ma’am, I’m not facing either one, but we’re looking at layoffs.’” Fisher said his business is down to eight people, five of them family members. “At what point do I let family members go?” At the direction of the claims group, Fisher said, he “fired the paperwork back to them with a request to treat our claims with a sense of urgency.”
Hoang Huynh, 40, and Loi Le, 40, Grand Bay
Occupation: The husband and wife have both shucked oysters for Coast Seafood in Bayou La Batre since 2001.
The Press-Register reported on June 18 that both were laid off from their jobs less than a week after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion. Speaking through an interpreter, Huynh said that all he knows how to do is shuck oysters, while Le said she doesn’t speak English and can’t work anywhere else. The couple have four children.
Outlook: Both remain unemployed. Huynh said that he had been told by his boss that no workers could be rehired until next year.
Claims process: Huynh and Le each filed claims with BP on April 28. Huynh has gotten four checks totaling $6,454. He made about $22,000 annually shucking oysters. Huynh said the amount BP has paid him is “fair.” Le said that she initially received two checks, each for $2,500, and a third for $1,170. Huynh said his wife was eventually paid the additional money she was due. He said they both continue to get the correct amount of money they are owed for loss of income under the Ken Feinberg-led claims process.
Paul Johnson, 32, Coden
Occupation: Commercial fisherman and co-owner of Three Men and a Boat on Heron Road where Johnson, his brother and father fish, shrimp, crab and pack and sell oysters.
The Press-Register reported on Aug. 23 that Johnson, who is a sixth-generation fisherman, and his family suspended business at Three Men and a Boat for more than two months following the oil spill. Johnson filed personal claims with BP.
Outlook: Johnson said Three Men and a Boat reopened within the past two weeks. “It’s going to be slow,” he said. “You have to get back into it. And the oyster part of our business is completely shut off.”
Claims process: Johnson refiled his personal claims shortly after Kenneth Feinberg took control of the claims process, he said, but as of last week, hadn’t received any additional money. “They sent us about a hundred pages to fill out,” he said. “We still haven’t heard anything. We’re going to move on. We’re still going to file, but we’ve got to move on.” Johnson received a $2,500 check from BP the first week of the original claims process, and had received additional payments from BP prior to Feinberg taking control, but he declined to give the amounts.
Keith Lee, 48, Foley
Occupation: Owner of Worldwide Interiors in Orange Beach.
The Press-Register reported beginning July 23 that an already lean stretch for south Baldwin County’s furniture sellers worsened with the Gulf oil spill. In June 2006, Lee’s company had sales of $90,000. This June, revenue was about $8,800. BP sent Lee a pair of emergency $5,000 payments.
Outlook: A business that had been a neighbor for 14 years has gone into foreclosure. “The oil crisis has separated him from his business, and those kinds of things continue to happen every day,” Lee said.
Claims process: “We haven’t received any compensation since Mr. Feinberg took over the operation,” Lee said. When he checked his status on the Gulf Coast Claims Facility website, Lee said, it indicated that he needed to provide more information. After going to the claims office in person, he was told that he would receive a letter detailing what additional information was needed. “I’m in the import business, and I buy products from around the world,” he said. “I can transfer documents and can transmit information as far away as you can get.” Lee said that instead of being able to provide the necessary information via e-mail or the Internet, he would have to wait for the letter to come in the mail. “That is the best illustration of the Feinberg system that I can possibly give you,” he said. “My personal belief is that someone is trying to slow, rather than speed, the process. The first time I heard him, I believed what he said, that you would be able to go to the claims office and process information locally. But that’s not happened. It’s very frustrating.”
Hollie LeJeune, 59, Daphne
Occupation: Co-owner, Market by the Bay seafood restaurant and shop in Daphne, which opened in 2004 and later expanded to Fairhope, selling high-end seafood.
The Press-Register reported beginning July 17 that her business was off 30 percent in June. She later spoke with Vice President Joe Biden about the challenges local businesses faced during Biden’s tour of a BP staging facility in Theodore. Business was off 50 percent in July but LeJeune felt she was getting a handle on the pre-Feinberg BP claims process and was slightly optimistic.
Outlook: Since July, she’s completed training to help seafood vendors ensure they’re selling safe products from government-approved waters. “We are hopefully optimistic,” she said. “We haven’t had a rebound yet, but it hasn’t gotten any worse. We’re hoping August was the bottom. We have business, and as long as we have business we can keep the doors open. We’re grateful for every customer that walks through the door.”
Claims process: “I’ll be kind and say it’s horrible,” LeJeune said of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility process. “With this new system you have no input whatsoever. The 800 number is a joke. The only thing you can verify is that you have a correct claims number. We did get some money, but if it’s for six months, it’s completely inadequate. It’s well below what we lose monthly. I e-mailed them asking exactly what the money we received was for and got a form letter back asking for my W-2 forms, what I made yearly and a letter from my employer. I forwarded that to the vice president’s office, our congressmen, our senators and everybody else I could think of. It was insulting. Communication is nonexistent.”
Jay McRae, 52, Mobile
Occupation: Chief financial officer of the family-owned Cedar Point Fishing Pier on the Dauphin Island Causeway, where upward of 400,000 people pay $5 each to fish the pier annually.
The Press-Register reported beginning June 12 that when officers tried to enforce a fishing closure in Mississippi Sound, they were involved in an altercation with Jay McRae’s father, Roland Cecil “Mac” McRae Sr., that sent the 74-year-old pier owner to the hospital. No charges were filed and no disciplinary action was taken against the officer after an independent investigation. The family contested a BP agreement to pay 57 percent of its claim.
Outlook: McRae said business was slow to return when the Mississippi Sound reopened to fishing Aug. 8, but has picked up since, peaking on weekends as usual. McRae said the business was fortunate to be in a good financial position when the spill hit, but it suffered from the loss of an entire Dauphin Island tourist season. “We’re fortunate in that we’ve been here a long time and had cash reserves,” McRae said. “With us being fishing dependent, and with what’s still out there in the water column and on the floor of the Gulf, we’re more worried about what’s going to happen with the fish next year and the year after that. . . . We’re more worried about if the people are going to come back.”
Claims process: McRae said he electronically refiled the business’ claim with Ken Feinberg’s independent operation Aug. 8 and has not heard anything since. “At least when you called BP, you had someone — the person who was handling your claim. I didn’t even get an acknowledgement that they received it,” he said. “Now, when I ask if I can talk to somebody, they flat out tell me, ‘No.’ I think they’re trying to depersonalize the whole process because they were worried the BP people were getting too friendly with people and might be paying them too much money.”
Greg Miller, 55, Fort Morgan
Occupation: Owner, Fort Morgan Realty
The Press-Register reported beginning June 21 that check-ins for newly arrived guests were down 90 percent at Miller’s business, and that BP had paid him about 20 percent of what he and his bookkeeper figured the business had lost.
Outlook: Miller said he was about to file a new claim with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, Feinberg’s process. If the new claims facility doesn’t cover some of the gap left by BP, Miller said, he may have to look at selling some of the eight beach rentals in which he and his wife, Susan, have ownership stakes. “If all we get is what we’ve been given so far, I don’t know if we will be here next year,” he said. “Banks don’t care if Mr. Feinberg over-promised and under-delivered,” added Miller’s bookkeeper, Terry Buck. “They just want their mortgage payment.”
Claims process: Miller said that the claims process under BP was a nightmare. He said he was hopeful that the claims facility would be run more smoothly, though early indications aren’t promising. Buck said that BP seems to have based payment on drastically unreasonable expense numbers. Certain expenses, such as air-conditioner repairs, are fixed, whether anybody stays in the beach cottages or not, he said. Feinberg’s adjusters told him they would use a different process, Buck said, but he’s reserving judgment until they send a check.
Karl Mueller, 36, and Paul Mueller, 40, Josephine
Occupation: Co-owners of Pirates Cove Marina, a restaurant and docking facility near the end of Baldwin County 95 southeast of Elberta that has been a family operation since 1957.
The Press-Register reported beginning June 17 that the Muellers and others in Josephine and Perdido Beach were fashioning oil boom out of hay and netting to help protect their coastline. Business was off 50 percent, they said, and they received some emergency money from the initial BP claims process. By midsummer, weekend business was off just 20 percent, while weekdays were down between 35 percent and 40 percent.
Outlook: “It’s slower than it normally is at this point in the year, but it’s a winding-down time for us. We’re not doing fantastic, but we’re hanging in there,” Paul Mueller said.
Claims process: They haven’t seen any money yet through the Feinberg system. “I do know that my claim has been reviewed and they want more documentation, but I have yet to see the letter that states what documentation,” Paul Mueller said. “If you go to the claims office in Foley, they can’t tell you anything, which is a crock. They’re being too restrictive about information. The adjusters are nothing more than data-entry people at this point, and it’s not like they’re untrained people. But all they can help you do is fill out packets.” Paul Mueller also noted that no one has ever addressed the question of FICA contributions, normally paid by employers to cover some Social Security costs. “My mom put in for personal compensation since she’s an employee of this company, and her FICA component would normally be paid for by the company. It wasn’t compensated, so that’s a 7.65 percent pay cut right there,” he said.
Jimmy Olive, 65, Satsuma
Occupation: Owner of Southern Gulf Seafood in Saraland since 1987.
The Press-Register reported beginning July 28 that Olive asked the public for help “convincing customers that the seafood that markets are selling is safe to eat and has no oil.” Olive filed a claim with BP in May, and said he needed $1,200 a month to cover overhead costs, but he had not received a check.
Outlook: People are still worried about the quality of shrimp and oysters, said Olive. Because of the slower business this summer, Olive was forced to close on Tuesdays and now operates only Wednesdays through Saturdays. In recent weeks, Olive said business has started to pick up, but it’s got a long way to go. “If business picks up, we stay. If it don’t, we won’t.” But, he added, “I can’t sit around waiting two to three years to see if it’s going to get back to normal.”
Claims process: Last week, Olive received the payment he requested “right down to the penny,” he said, though he declined to disclose how much he was paid. The check from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility covers Olive’s overhead from the start of the spill through December, and it reimburses him for the net profits he showed during the same period last year. Though Olive thought the claims process was too slow, he said, “They did it really right. I’m shocked they did it so good. . . . They got me back up to par where I should have been.”
Billy Parks, 53, lifelong resident of Baldwin County
Occupation: Owner of Billy’s Seafood, which has operated in Bon Secour for 35 years.
The Press-Register reported beginning July 17 that Parks’ business was down 75 percent after the spill. By mid-August he had filed his first claim but had not yet seen any money, and business was still down due to consumer worries about seafood safety. He filed his claim with the help of an attorney.
Outlook: “We’re still in business, but consumer confidence is still way down. Our business is still off 55 to 60 percent. There’s nothing wrong with the seafood, but people don’t seem to know that. I think BP should be helping us with that as well.”
Claims process: Parks filed his first claim in the last week of July for “a pretty good bit” through the original BP process, then had to resubmit several weeks later through the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. His lawyer checked the claim in the past week and was told it was pending. “Billy’s Seafood hasn’t seen a penny out of them yet,” Parks said. “We need the money to keep going.”
Terrance Roberts, 49, Mobile
Occupation: Owner of T-Rob Seafood since 2007. He holds a second job managing a warehouse.
The Press-Register reported beginning May 13 that Roberts was worried about whether he would be able to maintain his mobile seafood business, which he operates out of a truck, through the summer. He got two $5,000 checks from BP.
Outlook: Roberts was forced to park the truck Aug. 1 because of a lack of sales. He typically operated in the Mobile and Birmingham areas between May and September. He would like to open again next year, but the future of his business depends on what he receives from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. “The claim will save me,” Roberts said, “but I’m just waiting.”
Claims process: On Aug. 23, Roberts filed a six-month, $30,000 claim, but he said last week that he had yet to receive word on whether he would be paid. If he does not receive a payment, Roberts said he would put his business on hold and contact an attorney. “I don’t know what to do until they make a decision,” he said. Roberts believes the claims process, under Feinberg, has been too slow. “He didn’t do his homework, or he wouldn’t have been making those promises” of speedy claims payments, Roberts said.
Ted Scarritt, 54, Orange Beach
Occupation: Owner of Perdido Beach Services and Sail Wild Hearts.
The Press-Register reported beginning July 28 that Scarritt’s dream of running a charter catamaran business had been put on hold. After years of preparation, he’d just purchased and outfitted the Wild Hearts catamaran, and was gearing up for the summer season when the oil started washing in. His main business, renting beach chairs and other equipment at condos and hotels, was off 80 percent, he said.
Outlook: Scarritt said that his beach business will survive. He’s used to going through the lean winter months without any income from the beach services company. Still, he said, “I’m not where I should be financially. I’m a low-debt kind of guy. It’s just the way I was raised. So, I’m not in too much danger that way.” Despite the frustration, Scarritt said he wasn’t stressing too much. Wild Hearts is back out on the water, he said, which is where it belongs.
Claims process: Scarritt said his summertime help is paid on commission, and that BP did right by his employees, paying them the difference between their base pay and what they would have made in a normal year. In July, Scarritt said that he was confident that BP would keep its word and pay for the damage done to his business. That didn’t happen. “They threw me a bone,” he said last week, “and you know, it didn’t have much meat on it.” Without getting into specifics, Scarritt described the payment by BP as not coming close to the revenue Perdido Beach Services missed out on because of low beach traffic. BP didn’t pay him anything for Sail Wild Hearts, which was in its first year. Scarritt said his accountants are in the process of filing new claims under the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.
Dave Sheffield, 60, Fowl River
Occupation: Bait and seafood shop owner for 30 years.
The Press-Register reported beginning June 28 that Dave’s Seafood Bait and Tackle near Fowl River in south Mobile County suffered a massive loss of customers after the spill closed fishing areas.
Outlook: Sheffield said on Thursday around noon that he had made about $10 in sales all morning, a typical day in recent weeks. He said it remains live bait season and that he keeps hoping for a pickup in business. But he added that he is seriously considering closing until next spring. “Why sit here all day hoping to see a customer?”
Claims process: Sheffield said BP PLC made three claims payments, enough for him to keep the electricity on and maintain his insurance. He said he has gotten nothing so far from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility except a demand for more information. “We are under review, like most other people,” he said. Sheffield said he is scrounging for additional profit/loss statements in hopes of satisfying the adjusters. “We’re going to try to find something else for them. If it was good enough for BP, I don’t know why it’s not good enough for the Feinberg people. It appears to me to be a stall.”
Janille Turner, 44, Mon Louis Island
Occupation: Turner and her husband have owned the Topless Oyster Raw Bar & Grill on Dauphin Island Parkway since 2007.
The Press-Register reported beginning July 28 that Turner filed a lawsuit against BP PLC over its use of the oil-dispersing chemical Corexit, and later, that she had gotten one $5,000 claims check from BP.
Outlook: Turner said in August that things were growing desperate and the outlook has only gotten worse since then. “We just got our first table for dinner (for the evening) and it’s 8:15,” she said on a Thursday earlier this month. She said she likely will have to decide whether to close the restaurant by the end of the month, barring emergency cash being received from her claim. She estimated that her business has lost $75,000 to $80,000 since the spill.
Claims process: Turner said that she refiled her application with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility and submitted some 75 pages of documents, including tax forms and copies of her liquor and business licenses. But she said she had not received any money beyond the initial $5,000 payment BP sent in June. “I’ve had no more luck. I filled out all the paperwork on the day it opened.” She got a letter last week asking for gross sales figures for her business since May. She said that she had already submitted that information but that the claims office apparently lost it. She said she is resending it along with copies of all of her past-due bills and their cutoff dates in an effort to speed the process. “Everybody who works for me already has been paid, so I don’t know what’s going on,” she said.
Kathleen Walker-Gordon, 53, Bon Secour
The Press-Register reported on Aug. 15 that Walker-Gordon, who comes from a family of charter fishermen, was unemployed and planned to take a job through a friend to provide housekeeping services for beachfront condos when the oil hit. She filed a claim for what she expected to make providing housekeeping services, about $240 a week, but never received a check.
Outlook: Walker-Gordon said that she remains unemployed. “I’ve put out at least 35 applications,” she said, “but I still have not found a job. . . . .You do the best you can but you can’t live on nothing. It’s getting rough. There are people here who are hurting. We can’t keep going on nothing.”
Claims process: Walker-Gordon refiled her claim at a Foley claims office about 24 hours after Kenneth Feinberg took over the claims process, she said. “I have not received a dime or a decision,” she said. “The businesses that need the money, yes, they need it. But we also need to be thinking of individuals who can’t pay their bills or go out and buy groceries. I hope they come back and tell me I’ll get some money.”
Belinda Wilkerson, 62, and Albert “Coy” Wilkerson, 51, Bayou La Batre
Occupation: Shrimpers and oyster workers.
The Press-Register reported beginning May 2 that the Wilkersons were concerned about the future of the seafood industry, and that they received more than $70,000 while working in the BP program that paid boat owners to work in spill recovery.
Outlook: “I don’t think it looks good at all,” Belinda Wilkerson said. After the areas off Alabama and Mississippi shores where they shrimp were reopened, she said, “you couldn’t catch a mess. . . . I don’t think there’s a future in shrimping for the smaller businesses. I don’t know how they’re going to overcome these losses with the shrimp. I don’t think we’re ever going to make any more money.”
Claims process: Belinda Wilkerson said she filed a $25,000 claim with Feinberg’s group for a 50-foot shrimp boat that was not used in the Vessels of Opportunity program. As of last week, she said, she had not received a response about that money.